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Lost Weeks and Invincible Summer

Well, everything last week went horribly downhill the day after my last blog entry. I got sick with a nasty, feverish cold, MrD got sick with a much worse virus (missing three days of school), and worst of all, I got really awful news from home that left me stunned and sad. There are times when it's just not possible to write. Now this week, I'm scrambling to catch up on everything I fell behind on last week, with deadlines looming in all directions.

So it was really lovely timing to get a message from a wonderful jeweller I know, Kimmi, who makes beautiful jewelry out of broken china plates and cups. I've loved her jewelry for a long time, so when I sold The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, I decided to finally treat myself...by commissioning a necklace from her! I asked for the china fragment at the necklace's center to be dragon-themed, and I wanted the necklace to somehow include the phrase "Invincible Summer," from one of my very favorite quotes in the world:

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. (Albert Camus)

It's a quote that's meant a lot to me over the years, during the worst of my M.E. crashes, when I was trapped in bed, and also during long rough spots in my career. In other words, it's a quote that's given me hope and faith during some very, very difficult moments in the past.

Well, Kimmi just sent me photos of my finished necklace. The china fragment shows a dragon tail giving an insouciant flick past a castle (which is just right for my book, for so many reasons!) - and oh, it's all just perfect:

(Just click on any of the photos if you want to see larger versions.)

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I love it so much. It's so right for my book in so many ways, and it's such a good reminder for me. I'm hoping to pick it up tomorrow, and I'll be wearing it during all of my writing sessions this week.

What about you guys? Do you have any pieces of jewelry that hold really special significance to you?
Near the end of last week, I took the train up to London to meet with my new publishers and found out one of the nicest side-effects of being published by Bloomsbury (even beyond the fact that they sent me home with delicious cakes!): it's less than two minutes' walk from the British Museum! When I'd first spotted that on the map of London, I thought: Yes, but is it worth going to the museum if I only have half an hour to spend there?

It was SO worth it.

I saw almost none of the museum, of course, with so little time there...but everywhere I looked, I saw jaw-droppingly gorgeous and ancient statues. I am DETERMINED to get back there, for longer...and to bring my little boys with me, too! Toddler X, who adores lions, was fascinated by that photo. Better yet, I have a sister-in-law who works at the museum and has promised to give us a behind-the-scenes tour if we can all make it up there. THIS MUST HAPPEN!

And in the meantime, wow, was it a remarkable half hour.

The last few days have been quieter. No more London glamour! Just lots of reading Frog and Toad books with Toddler X and Pugs of the Frozen North with MrD (you can read my rave review here) and sneak-writing more of my MG spies-and-fairies book whenever possible. I'd been focusing on it nonstop since the beginning of September, and I'm just over halfway through the first draft, but I'm starting a big new freelance project today, and my edits for The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart are coming soon, so sneak-writing is becoming the order of the day for the next couple of months. I woke up an hour early this morning so that I could sneak-write as much as possible before my real work day began.

Then I took our sweet old Maya-dog to the vet for a check-up and the refill of all of her different necessary medications that get her through the days these days...and came back to read this gorgeous flash fiction piece, which - talk about timing! - of course made me cry: What Wags the World, by Sarah Pinsker. If you've ever loved a dog, read this story! It's beautiful.

And here's our sweet Maya-dog, whom I love:

...is that sometimes, things can get a little too meta in our house. Take this morning, for example:

Me (having just finished a long writing session, lying flopped on the bed and having a hard time motivating myself to move): "Patrick, tell me to stand up!"

Patrick (working on a whiteboard nearby): "Why?"

Me: "I need to take a shower."

Patrick (still studying the in-progress outline for his new book on the whiteboard): "Hmm, I'm not sure the stakes are really high enough if all you need to do is get clean. Will showering actually save your whole city from destruction?"

Me: "Er...I'm not sure my showers are quite THAT effective." ;)

(I showered anyway.)
Hooray! My historical fantasy/horror story "Stitching Time" was re-published in the new online magazine Grendelsong this weekend.

I wrote this story as my adult response to the stories I was told as a kid of what used to happen to Michigan farmers' wives over the long, isolated Michigan winters. Here's a quick snippet from the opening:

Imagine a farmhouse surrounded by snow. Not a thin layer of soft, flaky whiteness, the kind you might see in more civilized climates–this is Northern Michigan, where the snow falls and falls until it buries the roads, covers the windows, and mounts up before the door. The nearest neighbors are a mile away, impossibly far. Every morning, the men in this scattered community dig their way through to the barn where the livestock are sheltered from the cold. Every winter, some of the wives go mad.

There is a special asylum for these women, and in the spring you can watch the line of farm horses pulling them away in carts, plodding down the familiar road once the snow has finally melted. Women who were mail-order brides from the East Coast, seduced by the idea of family and land. Women who carried on correspondences with lonely Western farmers for years before they took the plunge. Dr. Horace Q. Grace will care for all of them, for a very moderate price. Some of them will return to their husbands, almost cured, by the fall. Others will be less lucky, and then their husbands will start all over again, biting on the tips of their pencils as they try to recollect spelling lessons from long ago. A lonely farmer hopes for a woman’s touch...

Thank God for the invention of cross-stitch...

Read the full story.

"Stitching Time" was originally published in two different magazines that are now both out of print, so I'm really happy to have it out in the world and available to readers again.

There's another story of mine that was also published in two different magazines that are now out-of-print (including the previous, paper version of Grendelsong, actually!), "By the Light of the Dark," which has been unavailable to readers for a while now. However, it's just been added to the stretch rewards for Funds for Rochita, a fundraiser for a warm, generous fellow author whose family has just suffered a terrible loss. There's a minisite for donors which offers free downloads of all sorts of cool stories and other things (including stories by Ursula Vernon and Elizabeth Bear and even a dinosaur coloring book, too!) to everyone who donates any amount, no matter how large or how small. The fundraiser is currently at 10,265 Euros, and as soon as it hits 10,500 Euros (which I strongly suspect it will within the next day or two), a free, downloadable version of "By the Light of the Dark" will be added to that minisite.

"By the Light of the Dark" is a retelling of one of my favorite fairy tales, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and I originally wrote it as a Valentine's gift for Patrick...so as you might be able to guess, it's a very romantic story. :) If you donate any amount at all to Funds for Rochita, you should be able to download the story for yourself very soon, and even before that happens, you can enjoy all the other treats already uploaded to the donor minisite.

And! No matter where in the world you live, you can enter a giveaway right now (at least, if you see this within the next four days) for a signed ARC of Patrick's fabulous upcoming MG British/Martian adventure novel Secrets of the Dragon Tomb. All you need is a (free) Goodreads account to enter. I love this book SO much. Dinosaurs! Spies! Clockwork butlers! Adventure! And annoying little sisters! You can enter the giveaway here.

Happy reading!


My Halloween Short Story

In honor of the holiday, here's my own Halloween short story: "Clasp Hands" (published in Daily Science Fiction in 2014).

Here's a quick excerpt from the opening:

The smallest witch hung over the banister, her whole body forming an arc of yearning, as the first of her mother's friends arrived for their annual feast.

"Bella!" It was Aunt Calliope, bursting into the house in a cloud of snow, wrapped up in a six-foot scarf. She was already unwinding the scarf as she spoke to her hostess, midnight-blue wool and white stars swirling around her round, comfortable body. "Terrible weather! That traffic, can you believe it...?"

But the smallest witch knew better than to listen to what Calliope said in those first, guarded moments. She looked instead, with her eyes half-closed, until she saw what was hiding underneath: the glimmer of gold filling the air around Calliope, and the tiny owl who hid, buried deep in Calliope's curly brown hair, blinking out at the smallest witch with a deep yellow gaze.

As the owl's eyes blinked twice, Calliope looked up. "And Katy!" She beamed and blew a kiss up the stairs, her long scarf dangling from her fingers. "Look how big you are! Is your mama finally letting you stay up this year?"

"Absolutely not!" said Katy's mom. The black-and-gold leopard on the back of her sweater seemed to arch and stretch in warning as she whisked Calliope's scarf away and hung it over Katy's favorite coat hook, the one shaped like an eagle's head...

Read the whole story here.

Happy Halloween!

Paradoxes and a New Book Love

Ahhh, the paradox of being a parent: that I can adore my children SO fiercely...yet feel such exhilaration when the door closes behind them, they head out for adventure, and I'm left alone to read and write to my heart's content!

Luckily, they're heading out with two loving relatives to look after them, and they're both excited about the prospect, so I don't have to feel guilty about my bliss today. ;)

Have I ever mentioned that my favorite cake shop in town (or, indeed, in the world) also has a massive set of bookcases lining one long wall, full of interesting secondhand books for sale? (It really is like heaven - delicious Lindt chocolate cake AND books!) Yesterday, when the two little boys and I visited the cake shop, as well as eating well, I bought myself a pre-loved copy of Katherine Swift's memoir-cum-gardening-cum-history book The Morville Hours, and ohhhh, it is so, so good. The gorgeous writing just sucks me in every single time I pick up the book.

If you love gardening or history or just beautiful, immersive writing, I highly recommend it! (Personally, I can appreciate and even love beautiful gardens that other people have created, but I've never enjoyed gardening myself. So the truth is, I felt slightly wary of this book when it first came out several years ago, because of its gardening focus...but the history angle was enough to make me pick it up anyway when I spotted it on the bookshelf by our table yesterday, and the writing is so luscious that I'm actually loving all the gardening details, too!)

It's been a great half-term, full of paper dragons and wizards and adventures...but this morning, while my boys are out having fun with other adult relatives, I'll be curling up to write, to catch up on overdue beta-reads and critiques for writer-friends...and to sink into The Morville Hours with total delight.

Happy Friday!


Sneak-Writing and Cool Reveals

Well, drat. All those warnings were right after all...and after a month of devouring the first four seasons of The West Wing, I've given up midway through Season 5, because the drop in writing quality was just too disappointing. I miss the old TWW! I'll go back and try Season 5 again one day, when it's been long enough that I can't directly compare it against those earlier seasons. But for now, I'm casting around for new TV shows to watch. Any recommendations?

In other news, my seven-year-old has ten days off school for Half-Term break, so all of my writing is being done in tiny sneak-writing sessions, tucked in around the corners of the main parts of our days. Tiny, do-able goals are definitely the order of the day! I'm trying to average 315 words a day, and so far (knock on wood) it's working...but sometimes it takes three or four sneak-writing sessions in a day before I manage to hit those 315 words!

But the main parts of the day are all about half-term break, whether I'm chaperoning a playdate or curling up with both of my little boys, watching The Princess and the Frog. (We all love that movie! It's so funny and so much fun, and Tiana is THE BEST.)

And ooh, you have to check out the gorgeous, gorgeous full jacket art and examples of interior art that have just been revealed for Patrick's upcoming MG British-Martian adventure, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb! Not only did artist Jeremy Holmes do a fabulous set of cover images, but his interior illustrations throughout the book are AMAZING. I can't wait for this book to be published in January so you guys can all read it too!

Happy Distractions

Over here, Germ Central Command has ruthlessly taken control of my life, as I transitioned seamlessly from a rotten flu to a horrible, feverish cold. Sigh. In other words, I don't have many out-of-the-house adventures or writing advancements to report...but here are some things that have brightened the past week:

1. Emily Brown
Oh, am I grateful for those rare and fabulous picture books that are equally loved by my two-year-old and my seven-year-old! They are few and far between, but one particular series really stands out because it is so beloved by both of them: Cressida Cowell's Emily Brown series (illustrated by Neil Layton), about a clever, adventurous little girl and her old gray (stuffed) rabbit, Stanley. Over the last week, I have read our copy of Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency at least fifty times, and my seven-year-old has informed me that I am NOT ALLOWED to read it without him...which is tricky because my two-year-old is constantly demanding it!

So I've also ordered our own copy of That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown (which we'd previously borrowed from the library and loved) to give us a little more flexibility.

These books are so funny, so clever, and so charming, I don't even mind how many times my kids demand them, because I honestly enjoy them every time. Perfect for reading out loud while curled up with both boys on the couch - they make every one of us happy. Highly, highly recommended!

2. This fabulous post by Courtney E. Martin about writing in the midst of messy, imperfect life. Here's one of my favorite bits:

"I'm currently having fried chicken emergencies (thank goodness for Bake Sale Bettys and my honey) and losing control of my inbox and getting tough love feedback from trusted friends and battling back all the voices in my head that tell me that it was really dumb to try to write a "big idea book" when I have an almost 2-year-old (that those are for tenured professors with no caretaking responsibilities who can safely dot all the i's and cross all the t's and learn macroeconomics etc.). I'm pretty sure the manuscript is super uneven. I'm pretty sure I'm falling short in all kinds of important ways. But I want to read "big idea books" (and see films and hear music and...and...) from people who aren't tenured professors with no caretaking responsibilities, and people who worry about the impact of what they're saying and their own blind spots, so I'm going to keep writing and send an imperfect manuscript to my editor on October 15th. I want you to know that. In case you want to do something imperfect, too."

Read the full post here.

3. The West Wing
Oh, yes, my addiction continues! I'm in the middle of Season 5 now, and while everyone was right that the show isn't quite as fantastic after Aaron Sorkin's departure (at the end of Season 4), it's still very good, and I'm still completely absorbed by it. So I'm glad I didn't just stop at the end of Season 4, as I'd originally considered doing (after all the warnings)!

Now...back to writing!

Parenting, Creating, Being

I remember anxiously asking women writers who had kids: "Is the writing different, afterwards?"

I remember reading an article in Mslexia that filled me with panic as several women talked about how having children had killed their creativity.

I remember a whole literary history of women writers that taught the lesson to me, as a woman in my early 20s, that for a woman to be a great writer, she had to be childless...using Charlotte Brontë, who was killed by pregnancy complications, as the ultimate example. See???

Of course, Jane Austen actually died at around the same age as Brontë, without having gone through pregnancy - there were, after all, a LOT of things that killed women at young ages in the 19th century. On the other hand, Elizabeth Gaskell successfully wrote and published after having several kids. Fanny Burney (D'Arblay) continued to successfully write and publish after having her son. Later on, I found a whole history of "scribbling women" in the 18th and 19th centuries who published novels and nonfiction not just for the sake of their art but also to support their kids. Mothers have been writing and publishing for a very long time.

But of course, they weren't the women held up in the literary histories that I read when I was younger, which mainly went in a linear progression from childless Austen to killed-by-pregnancy Brontë to childless Virginia Woolf: The Greats. And even as I yearned for kids myself - because I've always wanted children at a deep level that had nothing to do with my career - I felt a lot of panic about what I might do to my writing by having them. How could I possibly justify that? What if, by having kids, I did something terrible to my writing - the one passion that had defined me since I was seven years old?

And in some ways, of course, I was right. It took me months after each childbirth before I felt creative again. I was lucky enough to get a real maternity leave after my first son's birth, but even so, I remember the feeling of pure relief, the first time a story finally popped into my head after he was born. Oh, thank God. I'm still a writer.

The second time, I didn't get a real maternity leave, and maybe for that very reason, it took me even longer to start to feel ideas flooding through me again. I worried that they would never come back. It wasn't a rational worry, but then, when you haven't slept for more than an hour at a time in several months - oh, and when you have hormones flooding your system, too - it's hard to stay entirely rational.

I looked at my second son's beautiful face. I told myself that having him would be more than worth it even if the ideas never came back. I felt like I might die if they didn't. But if anyone had tried to take my son from me, I would have killed them! It was exactly that kind of over-the-top moment in my life. Getting by on one-hour chunks of sleep - adding up to less than 4 hours a night, for over a year - isn't good for anyone. I don't like remembering my state of mind at that point.

But guess what? Kids get older.

I've always had a habit, when I get stressed, of mumbling to myself: "Once upon a time..." It's a reminder that things can feel bleak in stories, too, yet still turn out well, with a happy ending. Of course, when I mumbled that to myself as a stress-reliever, I never bothered to keep going past those first four words.

Then one day, when my older son was about a year and a half old, I was worrying about a variety of things when I muttered to myself, "Once upon a time..."

Something caught my attention, in the corner of my eye. My son's eyes had lit up. He was waving his hands impatiently. He hadn't started to talk yet, but the message was unmistakable: Well? Keep going!

So I did. And that was the day that everything shifted.

You see, both of my kids devour stories like chocolate. When I tell new stories at the dinner table, my older son shouts suggestions and requests, and my younger son - still a toddler and not talking much yet - hoots with excitement and bounces in his highchair, his eyes getting bigger and bigger with every new twist. And in reaction, I make my storytelling even bigger and more visceral, so that they can both take part. My dragons roar more loudly, when I'm telling stories to them. My slapstick moments get sillier. Everything has more heart.

That's happened in my writing, too.

As I wrote my latest MG novel, this past year, I distilled the story to its purest elements and told it to my then-six-year-old oldest son every day after my writing session ended. Together, we ate chocolate cake and talked excitedly about my chocolate-loving dragon-girl heroine. He always, always wanted to know: What happens next?

So far, he's made approximately twenty different possible covers for the book. He's going to pick his favorite, in the end, and we'll put it on his copy of the published version, which will (of course) be dedicated to him. I could never have written it so joyfully without him.

I've written a few short stories about parenting since becoming a parent, and those stories have been published, which is nice. But having kids has inspired me as a writer in so many more important ways over the last seven years. Telling my stories to my kids - sharing my writing with them - isn't just fun for me (although it really, really is).

It reminds me what stories really are, what they do, and exactly how important - and fun! - they can be.

I write fewer books and stories, right now, because I have young children. There is just no question about that. My younger son isn't yet in school; I don't have many hours free in the day. I struggle to hit my deadlines, and sometimes I think longingly of the books I don't have time to write, or of the writing retreats (organized by my friends) that I don't have the freedom to share. I think of how much more I could be writing, marketing, traveling, and researching, if I only had the time.

So maybe, in my early 20s, I was right, after all. If my only goal in life was to write the maximum number of words, then of course it would have been smarter not to have had children. And I would never, ever tell another writer what their own choices ought to be, because all of us have different underlying needs. What fulfils and inspires me might smother someone else, and vice versa.

But there's a secret that I've learned about myself since I've had kids: my life is big enough to hold more than one driving passion. And more than that: for myself, personally, having something else in my life matter to me even more than my writing hasn't been a bad thing for my writing after all, no matter how unimaginable that concept would have been for me before I became a parent. My heart got stretched wider when I had kids...and so did my writing.

I write less, but I write bigger, nowadays. My dragons roar louder. I care even more. And nowadays, there's an element of joy to my storytelling that comes directly from my experience as a parent, even when I'm writing stories or books that are far too mature for my own kids to read yet. Because no matter what the exact words I type might be, the underlying story, every time, begins: Once upon a time...

And inside, a little voice says: Keep going!


This post was part of the Parenting & Writing/Editing Blog Tour (hashtag #ParentingCreating on Twitter). You can read previous posts in the blog tour here:

· Leah Moore: On Being a Creative Parent
· Patrick Samphire: Scenes from an Exhausted Land
· Aliette de Bodard: The Myth of Entire
· Fran Wilde: Parenting(Creating).FailMode
· Joyce Chng: Writing and Mothering: A Burning Path With Nice Morning Glory Flowers
· Jim C. Hines: Balancing Writing and Parenting
· John Reppion: A Morning in the Life of a Writing Parent

Dragon Joy

Last week, after my new book deal was announced, I wrote to one of my very favorite artists, Sally Jane Thompson, asking if I could commission a sketch from her of a dragon (my dragon-girl heroine, Aventurine) drinking hot chocolate. I sent along the manuscript of my book so that she could read the first chapter or so and get any visual details she needed.

A few days later, she wrote back, having read the entire book - and ohhhhh, just look at the sketches she sent me!

I love them SO much!

Over here, it's been a week of bad health all around - I got the flu (and am still recovering), my seven-year-old is home sick with a nasty feverish cold, and Toddler X is on his third cold in a row...

...But I'm sitting here beaming at pictures of my fierce, beloved, chocolate-loving dragon.


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